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The evolution of a service-learning course.


A natural fit in a Construction Management capstone course is the active pedagogical approach of service-learning; however, as a faculty member who is interested in issues related to diversity and cultural awareness, the combining of the two is often difficult. This article addresses three conceptualized interpretations of service-learning as a progressive pedagogy dealing with technical, cultural, and political implications. Experiences from five years of teaching a service-learning course and the continuous evolution of that course are discussed.

Service Learning Conceptualized

Multiple conceptualizations of service-learning, as a pedagogy, have been developed by Butin (2003) to help clarify and provide groundings for discussing the implications of service-learning. While Butin provides us with four conceptualizations of service-learning, that of the technical, cultural, political, and poststructural, he also encourages theorists and practitioners of service-learning to use multiple perspectives. Butin states, "... many issues continue to plague service-learning practice and scholarship precisely because of a lack of multivocality in the definitions, criteria, and conceptualizations" (2003, p. 8).

The goal of this article is to document the evolution of course goals for a senior capstone course, which utilizes a service-learning pedagogy. This is accomplished by showing how a course which originated as a "one-way" service to the community, i.e. requiring students to apply their knowledge to solve specific building problems, evolved to become a "two-way" learning experience, where by the community was also encouraged to educate the students on the environment in which they live or operate. This approach allowed students to utilize their technical knowledge to aid community organizations and for these organizations to help educate the students about their culture and community. Responding to Butin's call for "multivocality", this article utilizes the experiences from two projects undertaken by students in the class which are analyzed through Butin's conceptualizations of technical, cultural, and political [1].

Incorporation of Service-Learning

Construction Management requires broad knowledge of architectural and engineering fields, a general understanding of skilled trades, as well as personnel and financial management. While construction is a technical discipline (originating in the architectural and engineering schools), this description is dissimilar to Butin's use of "technical" which is more commonly referred to in the service-learning literature as "academic service learning" (Butin, 2003 and Madsen & Turnbull, 2005). In academic service-learning, the focus is primarily on the linkages between course content and identified cognitive outcomes (Butin, 2003). In this context the "technical" refers not to the knowledge but rather the innovative pedagogy most closely aligned with the experiential learning espoused by John Dewey (1916). This is in opposition to Prosser (1925) who disagreed with Dewey and felt that a dual system was the best way to educate students about vocational (career) education. In fact in Prosser's sixteen theorems, there is no mention of educating to increase the student's sense of social responsibility; rather the theorems only concentrate on training for industry. Dewey (1916) warned against a dual system, instead he espoused the benefits of a complete education involving both academic and occupation based experiential learning to provide "those who engage in industrial callings desire and ability to share in social control, and ability to become masters of their industrial fate" (13. 320).

We can allow for flexibility in the curriculum and the possibility for spontaneous learning situations if we expand the concept of service-learning beyond the simple notion of applied knowledge and the fulfillment of certain measurable academic outcomes. While we can create an academic learning objective of some immeasurable ideal as "gain an understanding of the plight of the homeless in urban areas", it is through the experience of interacting with these individuals and learning directly from them as to how they perceive themselves and their environment rather than reading about a theoretical or journalistic perspective [2]. As the cultural theorists Clifford Geertz (1973) asserts, we can see how one's "webs of meaning" (how one makes sense of who they are) shapes their identity in relation to other individuals and societies in the local and global community (Butin, 2003).

In a time when the mere mention of politics in the classrooms of higher education raises the hackles of some in America, it may be surprising to find the inclusion of a discussion of the political issues in service-learning. As witnessed by the recent proposed bills across the country similar to Ohio S.B. 24, "Academic Bill of Rights for Higher Education" calling for the banning of "persistently introducing controversial matter into the classroom or coursework" and for professors not to use "their positions for the purpose of political, ideological, religious, or antireligious indoctrination" (2005), it is evident that the term "political" needs to be clarified. When speaking of the political aspects of service-learning, I, like Butin, am not speaking of the politics of democrat vs. republican or espousing one particular view while ignoring others, rather I hope to ensure that all participants involved, student, teacher, and the community, realize the ramifications of service-learning particularly when working with historically "oppressed" people.

As part of the course in which I utilize service-learning, I try to express to the students that it is impossible to remove the "political" from life. The individuals and groups we work with (even if we exclude governmental entities which are clearly political) are still deeply affected by politics. While I don't insist that students share my personal views, I do try to make them aware of how politics shape the organizations they interact with. I agree with Stanley Aronowitz's forward in Freire's (1998) Pedagogy of Freedom where he speaks of the ideal concept of liberative pedagogies and the need to attack oppression at its source while cautioning us to avoid paternalism. To help explain his position, Aronowitz (cited in Freire, 1998) quotes a Nigerian student enrolled in an undergraduate course who stated: "I am tired of the oppressor always reminding the oppressed of their condition" (p. xxx).

Overall Course Goals

The idea of a capstone project to demonstrate the synthesis of theory, skill, and application to solve a problem is not a new idea. The American Council for Construction Education (ACCE), the accreditation body for construction programs in the United States, encourages the use of a concluding course, project, or exam that demonstrates the student's knowledge and ability to apply that knowledge. Our construction management program utilizes a capstone course which incorporates a major project as the concluding evaluation. ACCE's "Curriculum Topical Content" forms the basis for the specific academic knowledge that is introduced during the students' studies and tested in some concluding evaluative manner.

Project One: A Technical Exercise

I was introduced to the service-learning pedagogy not through scholarship or other professional means but rather through the desire to help protect the University's standing with the mayor of a local community. The mayor was promised a study detailing with the feasibility of an addition to their city building by a student no longer with the University. The mayor was asking for a report on the progress of the study. As a new lecturer, I inherited the project that the student failed to complete. I had just left industry four months prior to teaching this course. I was strong on technical "know how" and nearly void of ideas concerning pedagogy. In retrospect, not having a background in what is considered the "correct" teaching methods for such a course allowed me to launch into creative ways of co-learning with my students.

This first project (the Study for the mayor) went well from a technical perspective. The students, who were in the capstone course as one of the final requirements for the B. S. in Construction Management, were required to synthesize and apply the technical knowledge and skills they acquired during their four years of study. From that perspective, a technical conceptualization, the project was very successful. The students met with city officials of a small and relatively poor river town to discuss the need to modify their existing city building to allow access for all residents. Little attention was given to the culture of the small town or to the political environment in which the need, design, and funding existed. From a technical standpoint, the project was a huge success requiring students to learn to work with real "clients" and apply their theoretical knowledge to an actual project.

However, as I began to read and discover scholarship regarding the type of pedagogy I was utilizing, I realized that I was not fully implementing the idea of service-learning. I had successfully addressed only the first two of ten elements that Howard (1993) suggests are basic to community service-learning. Those basic elements include:

1. Academic credit is for learning, not for service.

2. Do not compromise academic rigor.

3. Set learning goals for students.

4. Establish criteria for the selection of community service placements.

5. Provide educationally-sound mechanisms to harvest the community learning.

6. Provide support for students to learn how to harvest the community learning.

7. Minimize the distinction between the student's community learning role and the classroom learning role.

8. Re-think the faculty instructional role.

9. Be prepared for uncertainty and variation in student learning outcomes.

10. Maximize the community responsibility orientation of the course. (cited in Jacoby, 1996, p. 32)

While the city building project was service to the community and clearly a form of outreach, it lacked the idea of what Jacoby (1996) refers to as reciprocity or the idea of mutual responsibility and learning between the students (or the university as a whole) and the community group they are working with. Bringle & Hatcher (1996) similarly called for moving beyond simply gaining additional insight into discipline specific areas of study and moving more toward the inclusion of a goal for service-learning courses that incorporated a greater sense of civic responsibility for all involved (student, professor, and community members). Unfortunately, no structured discussion or reflection was required or observed in the course. The opportunity for discussions surrounding the culture and politics embedded in and imposed on the relatively poor river town were not so much ignored as unintentionally disregarded.

Project Two: Incorporation of Butin's Call for "Multivocality"

Needed changes regarding student goals and my role as a faculty member in the course became increasingly apparent. During the spring semester of 2002, I was approached by a student from Liberia who asked if we could help out with the design and creation of plans for a school building in his home town of Zion #1. Due to the extended civil unrest in the country, neither time nor money was available to maintain or repair the local school building. In fact the main organization, CARE [3], who had been providing assistance in school construction and maintenance, had pulled their resources out of the country due to increased threat of violence from the ongoing civil war. Since I envision community engagement as ranging from local to global communities, this project was a welcomed challenge.

As part of the course, the student from Liberia worked closely with a team of three students in my class to develop the required design and plans for constructing the schools, as well as an estimate of the material and time needed for construction--time in terms of U.S. buildings and capabilities (to test discipline knowledge) and an approximation of volunteer time and materials for the towns people in Zion #1. The construction students worked closely with the student from Liberia who had a considerably different background from their own. The student was asked share with the class his background and his knowledge of the current conditions that existed in Liberia (which he gladly accepted). In this way, all students (and myself) gained from the experience. Zion #1 today has a new school building and ten more are being constructed in nearby towns using the same building plans. The students in this particular service-learning capstone course were required to apply, synthesize, evaluate, and reevaluate the knowledge they had acquired during their studies. In addition, these same construction students also learned about another country, deep in the throws of a civil war, and the impact of such an experience on its citizens and the personal experience of a refugee from that country.

Preparing for Future Projects

The capstone course, possibly more than any of my other courses, is one I'm constantly reviewing and revising. Over the past five years I have moved away from lecturing and now hold the course in a seminar fashion with multiple "reporting" sessions where students present their work to the class.

I have found it necessary to attend the first meeting between the students and the community members with whom they will be working. This is in part to ensure that the community members understand the requirements of the course which the students have to fulfill and also to ensure that those individuals (students and community members) understand the commitment to which they are agreeing. Part of the reason for this first meeting is to meet the particular community group and ensure that the group does indeed fit the profile (non-profit, governmental, etc) that I have established as a criteria for the course partnerships. This meeting also provides the opportunity to ensure that the community's needs are also being met. Over the years I have found the communities with which we have partnered to appreciate the outreach from the University and have in turn relayed their delight and their desire to help the University during meetings with the University's President.

The spring 2006 semester will see a new requirement for the students, the use of reflective essays. The final technical plans and report (proposal) the students create for the course leaves little room for reflection about the learning experience or what was learned from and/or about the community organization with which they worked. The reflective essays will require the students to think more deeply about the individuals and community organizations with whom they are working. I have decided that for this course, our projects would be working with only non-profit organizations and small city governments who cannot afford to hire consultants. These essays will also enable me to begin to collect data for additional analysis of service-learning by allowing me to monitor how students are interacting with the community rather than simply assuming that if they are working with members of the community, they must be gaining some cultural and political insights.

This service-learning capstone course has become so popular by word of mouth that several months prior to the course, communities and groups are requesting to work with us. In January 2006, the class will divide into groups and work on several projects. One small city along the Ohio River in Kentucky, that is having problems with teenagers skateboarding in public areas, has asked for help with the design a skate park. The city consists mainly of individuals earning less than a living wage with a few upper middle class families. The group (or groups) that decide to work on this project will meet with the city administrator, chief of police, and several residents including an architect, an engineer, and several teenagers and their parents to determine a location and design.


While courses that concentrate only on the technical aspects of the discipline are common and generally accepted as normal among students, faculty, and accreditation bodies, these courses fall short of their full potential. As a capstone course, students should be able to engage a problem critically, based not only on knowledge of their discipline, but from a wider perspective utilizing tools presented to them in general education courses. By incorporating concepts of culture and politics into the technical aspects of construction, this capstone course has evolved from a narrow discipline specific demonstration of skill into a multifaceted critical problem requiring both technical skills as well as the need to draw from theoretical constructs presented to them during their social science and humanities courses. Agreeing with Dewey (1916) that there is a need for more intermingling between the professional fields, social sciences, and humanities; service-learning has proven to provide an environment for integration and cross-disciplinary research and problem solving through experiential learning.


Academic Bill of Rights for Higher Education, General Assembly of the State of Ohio, 126th General Assembly Sess.(2005), Retrieved October 17, 2005, from

Bringle, R.G. & Hatcher, J.A. (1996). Implementing service learning in higher education. Journal of Higher Education, 67(2), 221-239.

Butin, D. (2003). Of what use is it? Multiple conceptualizations of service learning within education. Teachers College Record, 105(9), 1674-1692.

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York: The Free Press.

Freire, P. (1998). Pedagogy of freedom: Ethics, democracy, and civic courage. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Howard, J. (Ed.). (1993). Praxis I: A faculty casebook on community service learning. Ann Arbor, MI: OCSL Press.

Jacoby, B. et. al. (1996). Service-learning in higher education: Concepts and practices. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc.

Madsen, S. R., & Turnbull, O. (2005). Teaching citizenship through service-learning. Academic Exchange Quarterly, 9(1).

Prosser, C. A., and Allen, C. R. (1925). Vocational education in a democracy. New York: Century Company.

Sean P. Foley, Northern Kentucky University


[1] While Butin defines four conceptualizations, a discussion of surrounding a poststructural conceptualization would require a greater space than available for this article.

[2] The author acknowledges that this statement assumes that the students participating in the course are acting from an outsider position and can be viewed in a voyeuristic way. The author also recognizes that some students may come from the very communities with which we are working; therefore, instructors should be cognizant of both students and community members and follow the "cause no harm" approach.

[3] CARE is an international organization whose mission is to work with poor countries around the world in an effort to find lasting solutions to poverty.

Sean P. Foley, is an assistant professor of Construction Management at Northern Kentucky University and doctoral student at Miami University, Ohio (PhD expected May 2006).
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Author:Foley, Sean P.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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